I Am NOT A Cow. A Dialogue You Should Consider About Personal Branding

If I am not a cow, why am I constantly being told that I need to brand myself?

I cringe when logos are branded on cows with a scorching iron for the rest of their short lives. So why on earth would I want to commodify myself with a logo or slogan for the rest of mine? I AM A PERSON, NOT A THING OR ANIMAL THAT’S SOLD; a proper noun, not just a vaguely used pronoun or inanimate object. I have a soul. I have ideas. I feel things. I learn. I grow. I change.

Something similar to the above excerpt is what many people think when they hear the term “personal branding”. I used to be one of them. Even though I am not entirely convinced “personal branding” is a thing we should be doing, I figured I would at least try to explore what it is in a little more detail, as well as some well-known pros and cons surrounding it.

In this post, I want to think about what having a “personal brand” is and what it means for us in business, society, and as entrepreneurs and freelancers. You, of course, get to make the ultimate decision for yourself. Knowing some of the information laid out here might help.

What exactly is “personal branding”?

The personal branding movement really took hold after Tom Peters’ article The Brand Called You was published in 1997 in Fast Company. Some of you might even remember that pre-social media era where the Tommy Hilfiger brand and the Body Shop were all the rage, and email and the Internet were newer marketing mediums to be taken more seriously. Even if you aren’t fond of the advice in this article, it at least provides a sense of nostalgia to a pre-social media era.

In “The Brand Called You”, Peters states:

“Start right now: as of this moment you’re going to think of yourself differently! You’re not an “employee” of General Motors, you’re not a “staffer” at General Mills, you’re not a “worker” at General Electric or a “human resource” at General Dynamics (ooops, it’s gone!). Forget the Generals! You don’t “belong to” any company for life, and your chief affiliation isn’t to any particular “function.” You’re not defined by your job title and you’re not confined by your job description.
Starting today you are a brand.”

People really gravitated toward this idea of being able to self-promote while being in charge of their own image and career, outside of the companies they worked for. People gravitated to this idea in droves, to the point that “Personal Branding Expert” is an actual career title now. There is also an expert blog about it, and numerous books and articles written about it.

One of the more popular definitions now:

“Personal branding is the means by which people remember you. It’s more than a trademark; it is how you present yourself online and offline to potential clients and customers. Your personal brand builds your business, but it still centers around you as an individual.” (source)

Now, let’s explore some common pros and cons of “personal branding”.

PROS and CONS of promoting a “personal brand”:

PROS of “personal branding” according to Peters in The Brand Called You:

It can set you apart from the crowd, if you know how to offer what everyone else isn’t offering

“Ask yourself: What do I do that adds remarkable, measurable, distinguished, distinctive value? Forget your job description… ask yourself: What have I accomplished that I can unabashedly brag about? If you’re going to be a brand, you’ve got to become relentlessly focused on what you do that adds value, that you’re proud of, and most important, that you can shamelessly take credit for.”

It can allow you to gain “influence power”

“It’s being known for making the most significant contribution in your particular area. It’s reputational power. If you were a scholar, you’d measure it by the number of times your publications get cited by other people. If you were a consultant, you’d measure it by the number of CEOs who’ve got your business card in their Rolodexes. (And better yet, the number who know your beeper number by heart.)”

[I couldn’t resist including a reference to Rolodexes and beepers.]

It can increase a sense of loyalty to your network, to yourself, and to your career

“Today loyalty is the only thing that matters. But it isn’t blind loyalty to the company. It’s loyalty to your colleagues, loyalty to your team, loyalty to your project, loyalty to your customers, and loyalty to yourself.”

CONS of “personal branding”:

It can be limiting to your professional image and growth

A majority of individuals in business under the age of 32 have switched jobs four times within the decade after they graduated from college (source: LinkedIn study). Many of those individuals even switched one job for another in an entirely different industry. And in the current “gig economy” which saw an increase of 9.4 million Americans from February 2005 to November 2015, we’re constantly switching gears and learning new things and participating in different work. Why? Because we go where the gigs are.

Is it possible to stay consistent in your “personal brand” when you switch industries? Or when you have an eclectic background? When is the right time in your professional career to decide what you want to be known for and do forever?

Shouldn’t we always be learning and growing? The concern is that once you are “branded” on the Internet, the image of who you were has the potential of becoming static because the older information on the Internet about you will always be available, long after you have switched gears.

It can force you to be inauthentic

If you are constantly referring to a created abstract image of yourself that you polish constantly, you won’t be able to be authentic. As complex human beings, we are never just one thing, whether in the professional realm or the personal realm [period]. And as complex human beings, we should be expected to make mistakes and talk about a variety of different things. If someone only shows one side of themselves consistently, it almost seems as if he/she is hiding a part of themselves from others. He/she, to put it bluntly, also seems boring and two-dimensional. Can you tell your story without labeling yourself?

“The point in thinking about yourself as a “brand” isn’t to create an alter-ego called our “personal brand” that presents a super-human, polished, and robotic persona of the real you. The point is to become authentic in who you are and intentional about how you tell your story.” (source)

It can cause you to be self-absorbed or to seem self-absorbed

(source)

Carefully manicuring an online representation of yourself and ensuring that it is consistent across platforms at all times is a lot of work. This constant work on your personal image causes you to always look at yourself and how you think others might be perceiving you, instead of you thinking about what others might be doing and who they are.

Self-promotion is often something that needs to be learned. And for some of us, maybe even most of us, we don’t feel the need to shout our accomplishments from the rooftops 24/7. It isn’t that we don’t see our worth in business, it is honestly that we understand that it is about them (our clients, readers, and employers) NOT us.

MY CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

If you aren’t faking it, then your “personal brand” will be there regardless, even if you don’t necessarily try to create one. We should start with others first and what they need, not ourselves. In business, if you aren’t listening to people or fulfilling a need…then what are you doing? You can try to project yourself and your brand on others all day, but if you aren’t providing something people need, then why would others care about your brand? Start with them.

After discovering what others need, the next step is knowing yourself and what you are all about, not being preoccupied with how everyone else perceives the person you actually are. Everyone has opinions and there is never a shortage of critics. There is always going to be someone who thinks they know more than you do.

Finally, your voice and story will be there as long as you are being authentic. At the end of the day, I believe we all respond to authenticity more than anything else. It gets really boring when all people do is talk about themselves and what they think. It’s much more interesting and beneficial for everyone when we contribute to a conversation that is larger than ourselves.

In a nutshell, just be you and strive to provide something for others, and then your “personal brand” (if that’s what you want to ultimately call it) will follow.

What do YOU think? Comment below and share.

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